The Compound Insanity of Nukes

From the beginning, nuclear power plants have suffered from three flaws, each of them fatal:

  1. Unsupportable economics: the money doesn’t work
  2. Danger: it’s a deal with the devil we have already made
  3. An unmanageable future: we are locked into an impossible situation

From the beginning, the builders of nukes took a look at the possible repercussions of an atomic accident and decided they wanted the rest of us to pay for it. So they agreed to pay insurance premiums against the possibility of an accident, with the DoE picking up any tab under the Price-Anderson Act. The accumulation of these funds since 1955 amounts to $10-billion, a pittance for 56 years of fees. It’s uncertain what the cost of Japan’s near meltdown will be, but one guesstimate says that the nuke accident alone will cost Japan $100-billion.

That’s only the cost of an accident, of which we have had several now. Chernobyl, in 1986, as we all know, was the worst of them. Since it was impossible to do anything that would make the melted mass of reactor fuel even treatable, the Soviets pumped the container full of concrete and put up fences to isolate the entire region. Today the highly radioactive molten mass lurks in its own nest at the bottom of this concrete clump. Naturally, the dome over it has over time cracked, and now water leaks in. If it should come in contact with the molten core, there would be a powerful explosion from the steam, which might revive the entire disaster to headline status. Thus lead-clad workers must regularly enter the danger zone and pump the water out for the indefinite future.

There is also the cost of bringing a nuclear plant online. Without fail, every nuclear power plant in the world has had cost overruns of a minimum of 300%. Likewise, the time to bring a plant online, often estimated as 4-5 years, usually ends up being 15-25 years.

Essentially, nukes are a bad economic deal. But it doesn’t stop there.

Pluto is the god of the underworld, and plutonium, the material of choice for many nuclear reactors, is well named. Plutonium, like other radioactive materials, causes terrible illness and death. It does not take huge amounts of radiation to cause death, and cancers caused by radioactive exposure can arise decades later. Many of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs died from radiation effects decades later. The soldiers who witnessed our nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s experienced more cancer than normal. Other populations who experienced radiation exposure from one source or another had the same experience. Young women who were hired to paint radium wristwatch dials experienced high rates of cancer of the mouth, since they pointed their brushes between their lips. Radiation is dangerous.

Nuclear power plants cannot be made safe; they can only be made safer. The plain and simple fact is that using the most dangerous materials there are for a fuel source is quite literally a deal with the devil, with Pluto, god of the underworld. Nothing can be done to make a nuclear power plant completely safe.

Calculations of the probability of an accident generally suffer from, (1) trying to make real-world predictions from guesstimated very low probabilities; (2) ignoring worst-case scenarios, which have a nasty habit of happening anyway; (3) the hubris of the nuclear power industry, which has a vested interest in rosy predictions. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

But there are other dangers. Nuclear fuel must be transported. While the probabilities of a serious accident, such as a fuel spill in the middle of a city, are unlikely, is there anyone who will absolutely guarantee its safe passage? Then there are terrorist possibilities, more worrisome since 9/11.

But the worst of the three fatal flaws has to do with what happens after the fuel is no longer useful.

What has happened to it so far? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one ounce of spent nuclear material has been permanently disposed of anyplace. Nor will it ever be. Every last bit of it remains on site at the plant where it was used, stored in deep water, most of it above ground. These places will eventually leak out their water if not maintained indefinitely. And I do mean indefinitely.

Now, the maximum lifespan of a nuclear plant is usually reckoned at forty years, although there are plans in some quarters to extend this lifespan. How much longer will we have to guarantee the safe storage of nuclear materials? Well, the half life of Plutonium-239 is very brief, a mere 24,000 years, compared to millions of years for other Plutonium isotopes. Then all we have to do is safely store it until the year 22,000 or thereabouts. Looking backwards, that is equal to about twice the time since humans began farming.

Unfortunately, that only takes us to the half life. This stuff is still quite dangerous for a long, long time more than that. Essentially, the byproduct of nuclear electricity is dangerous for longer than Homo sapiens has been a separate species. That is 200,000 years plus.

The pyramids are about 3,000 years old. The oldest layers at Çatalhöyük, the ancient site in southern Turkey, are about 10,000 years old. No structure humans have made has lasted longer than that. So we must somehow either pay to protect this stuff for 200 millennia, or make storage foolproof for twenty times longer than has ever been achieved. We are incapable of either. Some will say that we have already found that safe place: Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. Anyone who believes that must read John D’Agata’s book, About a Mountain. You will soon be disabused of that fantasy.

Basically, it is much too late to avoid the devil’s deal for nuclear power we have already made. The best we can hope for is to stop compounding the error of this insanity now.

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Published in: on 2011/03/30 at 9:08 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Update 20 Dec 11, from the CDC: In the weeks following the Japanese tsunami and nuclear disaster, there were 14,000 excessive deaths of AMERICANS, mostly infants.

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